Tape Reading or Game Watching?
Unless you're committed to watching every single game in full (easier to do with DirecTV's short cuts), you'll inevitably miss some of each Sunday's action. And so you'll have to look at the stats and the box scores, read about what happened and maybe watch a few highlights. Or maybe you watch the red-zone channel, though in doing that you see a lot of different games, but get the actual flow of none.
Either way, we have to fill in the gaps for game action we missed, and make some decisions based either on second-hand information or just stats. In those cases, I tend to avoid writing about a running back's "explosiveness" or a quarterback's "arm strength," because I'm only taking someone's word for it, and it's possible that person is biased, or simply bad at scouting players. But I still have to make predictions for the upcoming week about them. So I'll take the snippets I have seen, add in the stats, consider what I've read and filter it through my knowledge of their specific teams and also the historical database of NFL players and teams in my mind to come up with an output. As you might imagine, my track record for prognostication in these cases is mixed. But is it any worse than in cases when I've watched the actual games?
I don't know the answer to that, but there's reason to believe it might not be. In fact, simply looking at the scores and stats – without the added qualitative data of watching the game – might even be better for prognostication purposes for a couple reasons:
First, while the visual data you absorb by watching a game clearly has value, it's easy to misinterpret it. Week-to-week team performance varies greatly, so if you see a particularly good or bad effort, but haven't watched the team every week, you might assume they're a lot better or worse than they are in a average week. For example, the Raiders looked terrible against the Chiefs three weeks ago and fantastic in San Diego on Thursday night. Depending which game you watched, you might have a very different impression of the Raiders and their various players. Similarly, the Eagles looked great against the Cowboys three weeks ago and awful against the Bears and Cardinals the last two weeks. It's very hard not to be persuaded by a dominant showing that a team is better than its record and previous results. Looking at the box score from one game isn't as compelling, and you can always fall back on aggregate stats to mitigate it. It seems harder to override a strong visual impression with season-long numbers.
Second, simply looking at the results and the stats, i.e., tape reading, helps filter the noise associated with game film, announcers opinions, other peoples' game recaps, etc., all of which are subject to various biases. You're simply noting factual results, the truth of which is beyond dispute. Starting with facts, e.g., Baltimore won at Pittsburgh 23 – 20 then lost at Seattle 22 – 17, rather than conjecture, e.g., Joe Flacco's not good enough to win a Super Bowl, protects you from the perils of fitting your predictions in with a particular storyline. I'm not 100 percent sure of many things, but that The Universe, God, or the Random Fluctuation of Atoms and Molecules (take your pick) does not adhere to anyone's preconceived storyline is one. There is no such thing as fate until something has already happened, and at that point it's a matter of debate whether it could have been otherwise. (A moot debate I might add – it's already happened so who cares?).
So there's a decent case for not watching or reading about any football, and simply looking at the box scores and stats if your only goals are winning your league and beating the spread. Unfortunately, watching the games provides a little too much enjoyment for most people to try that strategy seriously. There are quite a few games I wish I had not seen (any involving the Browns, for example), but for the most part I'm a committed watcher. The way I try to get around being biased (and am not always successful) is to absorb the visual data as best I can without creating a story out of it. Actually that's impossible, especially since to an extent it's my job, but I can do it without creating a story to which I'm particularly attached. Maybe the Niners defense is the real deal this year. But I'm open to the Seahawks scoring 27 on them this week and persuading me it's overrated.
King-Making Tight End?
Tom Brady won three Super Bowls before Randy Moss arrived in 2007, but his career-high in passing yards was 3764, touchdowns was 28 and YPA was 7.8. Donovan McNabb's career highs in those categories before 2004 were 3365, 25 and 6.7, respectively. When Terrell Owens arrived the following year, they spiked to 3875, 31 and 8.3. There might be other factors at play, too – the maturation of those players and a more pass-friendly NFL, but it's safe to say that Moss, a player who helped Daunte Culpepper to an all-time great season (4717 yards, 8.6 YPA, 39 TDs, 11 INT) and also Randall Cunningham (3704 yards, 8.7 YPA, 34 TDs, 10 INT) made his quarterbacks significantly better. Owens had a similar effect on Jeff Garcia (back to back 30-plus TD seasons, numbers he never approached again, too. True king-making receivers are rare – Brandon Marshall, despite being the highest-paid receiver in NFL history has been unable to turn the Broncos or Dolphins quarterbacks into NFL stars, and even Calvin Johnson's quarterback, Matthew Stafford, has a YPA of just 6.9, below average in today's NFL.
But given Philip Rivers unexpected struggles this year, especially with Vincent Jackson largely healthy, might Antonio Gates be the rarest of species, a king-making tight end? Rivers' three previous seasons saw him with 8.4, 8.8 and 8.7 YPA, but this year with Gates missing four games and not looking like himself in the other four (11.7 YPC, 7.8 YPT), Rivers is averaging 7.8 YPA and already has 15 interceptions to go along with just 13 TDs. Moreover, in the final six games of the year, (of which Gates missed four and played hurt through two) Rivers averaged 8.15 YPA with just seven TD and four picks. (One could accuse me of cherry-picking the data as Rivers went off in Weeks 9 and 11 last year absent Gates. But those games were against an abysmally bad Houston secondary (8.2 YPA allowed, 31st), and a also a Denver one that finished 30th (7.8 YPA allowed, 30th). The other six games were by no means against great secondaries – only Kansas City (5th) and Indianapolis (10th) were in the top-10, and Denver, San Francisco, Oakland and Cincinnati were all 19th or worse.
Again there could be other factors in Rivers' struggles this year, but losing arguably the greatest receiving tight end of all time (and one of the NFL's great red-zone threats) is likely a large one. Tony Gonzalez will have the all-time records, but to my mind he's more Henry Aaron to Gates' Babe Ruth.
Things to Take Away from Week 10
• Denarius Moore reminds me of Chad Johnson in his prime. Not huge, but gets downfield and makes the acrobatic play consistently. Maybe that's why Carson Palmer likes him so much.
• Michael Bush looked awfully polished as a receiver, catching balls in stride and moving very well after the catch.
• Vincent Brown looks like a player. Vincent Jackson could not have looked more apathetic after Philip Rivers threw a pick that was targeted for him in the end zone.
• I said on the radio that Tim Tebow was like Michael Vick on the Falcons in that you never knew when you would get a huge game or a bad one since it all depended so heavily on rushing yards. But the more apt comparison is probably Vince Young who was a monster during the second half of his rookie year and very good in the latter half of 2009.
• John Skelton finally got Larry Fitzgerald the ball. Maybe Kevin Kolb should take note if he ever gets his job back.
• Something's not right with Roddy White when Julio Jones goes down and Harry Douglas (14 targets) becomes Matt Ryan's first read.
• Matt Schaub's injury opens the door for the 5-4 Titans in the NFC South. It also means Andre Johnson's return might underwhelm. That said, Matt Leinart didn't kill Larry Fitzgerald's value in Arizona.
• The Ravens have beaten the Steelers twice, the Texans and the Jets, but have lost to the Seahawks, Jaguars and Titans.
• Christian Ponder passes the eye test.
• Mike Shanahan sure showed us. It's too bad Leonard Hankerson's out. He might have made the Redskins marginally relevant.
• The Bills were dominated for the second week in a row, but Fred Jackson always produces. DeMarco Murray is a top-10 back for now, and I'd be shocked if Felix Jones was more than a garden-variety change-of-pace guy when he returns. People are calling Jones "Wally Pipp," but Pipp was a productive regular for years before Lou Gehrig took over.
• I believe Mike Smith made the right call, going for it on 4th and inches from his own 30-yard line in overtime, rather than punting the ball back to the Saints. You may disagree, but if so, explain it to me in terms of mathematical probability, not blind faith in old school commandments which say what you can and can't do.
• Eli Manning nearly led the Giants back against the 49ers, but the degree of difficulty against that defense is high. Manning had to fit throws into narrow windows to make big plays against them, something which wouldn't be easy to repeat should there be a playoff rematch. Manning's becoming like some of the other top quarterbacks in the league in that he's looking for whatever receiver is open and not locking in on one player. As a result, Hakeem Nicks is might be more Marques Colston when he gets fully healthy than Andre Johnson.
Things to Look for in Week 11
• Tim Tebow's "read option" offense against Rex Ryan's defense off a short week.
• The Jeckyll and Hyde Ravens hosting the Bengals
• Philip Rivers attempting to pick up the pieces in Chicago
• The banged-up Eagles in the Meadowlands against the Giants
Beating the Book
Cowboys -8.5 at Redskins
This is a simple buy-low, sell high play as Dallas is coming off an impressive rout of the Bills at home, while the Redskins are playing games with their starting lineup and seem to have packed it in for the season. Still, in this rivarly, I'll take the big home dog nearly every time. Back the Redskins.
Cowboys 20 – 19
Last week we lost with the Chiefs to go 5-5 in this forum, 6-10 on the week and 67-74-5 overall. We were 10-7 in this forum last season and 40-27 over the four years of the column (we skipped Week 17 in 2007). From 1999-2010 we've gone 1565-1387 against the spread (53%, not including ties). The full article comes out Wednesday night.
Surviving Week 11
I wound up going with the Eagles last week, and I paid the price in my lone remaining survivor pool. I'm still alive as all six other players also took Philly, but I could have won it outright. The problem was that I had used up Vegas' top four choices (GB, BAL, SD and DAL), and the others fell slightly below my threshold even given the pot odds. I actually would have gone with Kansas City had I not taken Philly – which would have had the same result. In any event, let's take a look at this week's slate:
|Team||Opponent||% Picked*||Vegas ML**||Vegas Odds|